'Transitional Program': 'a program of action from today until the beginning of the socialist revolution'

The demand for shorter working hours with no loss in pay has been a key transitional demand.

By Doug Lorimer

[This is the introduction to Resistance Books' The Transitional Program and the Struggle for Socialism. For discussion on the left about the significance of the transitional method for socialists, see "In defence of the transitional method" by Dave Holmes.]


The “Transitional Program”, as it later became known, was drafted by the exiled Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and adopted as the basic programmatic document of the Fourth International at its founding conference held on the outskirts of Paris in September 1938 under the title “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”.

The Fourth International was founded on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War by the Marxist cadres that Trotsky had won around the world in the 1930s to the struggle to defend the revolutionary internationalist politics of the early years of the Third, or Communist, International against the nationalist-reformist politics of the petty-bourgeois Soviet bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin.

In discussions in Mexico City with James P. Cannon and other leaders of the Socialist Workers Party of the United States prior to the founding conference of the Fourth International, Trotsky pointed out that the “Transitional Program” was “not a complete program”. A complete program, he explained, “should have a theoretical exposition of the modern capitalist society in its imperialist stage”. Further, the document was “not complete because we don’t speak here about the social revolution, about the seizure of power by insurrection, the transformation of capitalist society”.1

A complete Marxist program, then, would contain a theoretical exposition of the fundamental characteristics of capitalist society in its imperialist stage, the seizure of political power by the working class and the objective tasks and line of march of the working class in replacing the capitalist social order with a classless, socialist society. Indeed, as was noted in the first complete Marxist program — the “Communist Manifesto” of 1848 — it was precisely their common understanding “of the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results” of the proletarian movement that distinguished the revolutionary communists, as the politically advanced contingent of the working class, from the great majority of proletarians.

The “Transitional Program” was more limited in its purpose. While written in parts more in the form of a public manifesto, it was, Trotsky explained in 1938, “a program of action from today until the beginning of the socialist revolution”.2 The central concept behind the “Transitional Program” was stated in the following passage from the document itself:

The strategic task of the next period — a prerevolutionary period of agitation, propaganda, and organisation — consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard (the confusion and disappointment of the older generation, the inexperience of the younger generation). It is necessary to help the masses in the process of daily struggle to find the bridge between the present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.3

In addressing himself to the problem of formulating such a system of demands, Trotsky based himself on the past experience of the Marxist movement in formulating a series of measures that the revolutionary workers would propagandise and agitate for the proletariat to fight for in order to overturn the capitalist private profit system and replace it with a democratically controlled system of social production oriented toward the satisfaction of human material and cultural needs.


The first such system of transitional measures was included by Marx and Engels in the “Communist Manifesto”. In the section on “Proletarians and Communists”, Marx and Engels argued that the “first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy”. They went on to explain that the working class “will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class”, adding:

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

These measures will of course be different in different countries.

Nevertheless in the most advanced countries, the following will pretty generally be applicable.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of wastelands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc., etc.4

Marx and Engels wrote the “Communist Manifesto” in anticipation of the outbreak of a bourgeois revolution in Germany, which, occurring under more advanced conditions of capitalist development than the bourgeois revolutions in England in the 17th century and France in the 18th, would “be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”. Consequently, in the manifesto they urged the “Communists to turn their chief attention to Germany”. The tactics Marx and Engels argued that the proletarian revolutionists grouped together in the Communist League should pursue in Germany were to “fight with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolutist monarchy, the feudal aristocracy, and the petty bourgeoisie”, while at the same time instilling “into the working class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, in order that the German workers may straightway use, as so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, the social and political conditions that the bourgeoisie must necessarily introduce along with its supremacy, and in order that, after the fall of the reactionary classes in Germany, the fight against the bourgeoisie itself may immediately begin”.5

To facilitate this tactical line, Marx and Engels wrote a short policy platform entitled “The Demands of the Communist Party in Germany”,6 which was distributed by Communists in Germany on March 31, 1848 and published at the beginning of April by various democratic German newspapers. The platform listed 17 measures which it declared were “in the interests of the German proletariat, petty bourgeoisie and peasantry to work energetically for the implementation of”. Only through the realisation of these measures, it stated, “can the millions of German people, who have up till now been exploited by a small handful, and whom some will attempt to maintain in renewed oppression, get their rights, and the power that they are due as the producers of all wealth”. The platform included measures to achieve a radical democracy (to transfer power into the hands of the producers) and to bring about immediate improvements in the living conditions of the exploited masses, for example:

1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a single and indivisible republic.

2. Every German over twenty-one years of age shall be able to vote and be elected, provided he has no criminal record.

3. Representatives of the people shall be paid, so that workers, too, will be able to set in the parliament of the German people.

4. The whole population shall be armed …

5. The exercise of justice shall be free of charge.

6. All feudal dues, tributes, duties, tithes, etc., which have oppressed the rural population until now, shall be abolished, with no compensation whatsoever …

12. All civil servants shall receive the same pay, without any distinction other than that those with a family, i.e., with more needs, will also receive a higher salary than the rest.

13. The complete separation of Church and State. Ministers of all confessions are to be paid only by their congregations …

15. The introduction of severely progressive taxation and abolition of taxes on consumption.

16. The establishment of national workshops. The state is to guarantee all workers their existence and care for those unable to work.

17. Universal and free education for the people.

But the platform also included a series of measures that made “despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production”, i.e., that were transitional to the centralisation “of all instruments of production in the hands” of the democratic power of the producers:

7. The estates of princes and other feudal lords, and all mines and pits, etc., shall become state property. On these estates, large-scale agriculture is to be introduced for the benefit of all and using the modest modern scientific aids …

10. One state bank shall replace all the private banks, and its note shall be legal tender.

This measure will make it possible to regulate credit in the interests of the whole population and thus undermine the domination of the big money-men …

11. All means of transport: railways, canals, steamships, roads, stations, etc. shall be taken over by the state. They are to be transformed into state property and put at the service of the needy.

Marx and Engels’ expectation that the German bourgeoisie would lead a revolutionary struggle against the absolutist monarchies and landowning nobility and create a unified German parliamentary nation-state were not fulfilled. During the revolutionary upsurge that swept Germany in 1848-49, the German bourgeoisie vacillated and compromised with the monarchist regimes. The Communists, who could count in their ranks only a few hundred members, were far too weak, numerically and organisationally, and too divided on tactics, to provide any alternative leadership for the popular revolutionary movements, which were eventually crushed by the armies of the monarchies.


Marx and Engels’ expectation that a proletarian revolution was impending in Western Europe was based upon the assumption that the periodic crises of overproduction that had erupted since the formation of the world capitalist market at the beginning of the 19th century — in 1825, 1836, and 1847 — were evidence that capitalist relations of production had become a fetter on the fullest possible development of the productive forces and that, at least in the “advanced countries” (Britain, Belgium and France), an epoch of potential anti-capitalist social revolutions had opened. This assessment was forthrightly presented in the “Communist Manifesto”, which argued that:

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, exchange and property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeoisie and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society. In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back in a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered …

[T]he bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law … its existence is no longer compatible with society …7

In the wake of the failure of the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary movements of 1848-49, however, and with further economic studies in 1850, Marx and Engels revised their assessment of the epoch. As Engels was to note in his 1895 introduction to Marx’s 1850 work “The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850”:

History has proved us, and all who thought like us wrong. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at the time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production …8

Furthermore, Marx and Engels revised their conceptions of the conditions required for a successful proletarian-socialist revolution. Commenting on this change, Engels wrote in the above referred to introduction:

When the February Revolution broke out, all of us, as far as our conceptions of the conditions and course of revolutionary movements were concerned, were under the spell of previous historical experience, particularly that of France. It was, indeed, the latter which had dominated the whole of European history since 1789, and from which now once again the signal had gone forth for general revolutionary change. It was, therefore, natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and the course of the “social” revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, should be strongly coloured by the memories of the prototypes of 1789 and 1830 …

But if we disregard the concrete content in each case, the common form of all these revolutions was that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority took part, it did so — whether wittingly or not — only in the service of a minority; but because of this, or even simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired that appearance of being the representative of the people …

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required9

In the context of this two revisions of their revolutionary perspective, Marx and Engels argued that the immediate task of revolutionary socialists was to organise the broad mass of workers to fight for reforms within the framework of the still ascendant capitalist society, while carrying out educational propaganda for the ultimate goal of socialism.

By championing and leading the daily struggles of the workers for immediate improvements in the living standards and political liberties and propagandising for socialism, the Marxists were able to win a mass base in the last two decades of the 19th century. This approach was codified in the programs of the big workers’ parties that arose during the second half of the 19th century, the most famous of which was the Erfurt program of the German Social-Democratic Party adopted in 1891.


The Erfurt program, which was drafted by Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein, was divided into two parts having no link or bridge between them whatever. First, there was a theoretical part which contained the so-called maximum program calling for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by socialism and, following this, a “practical” program of immediate reforms that the socialist party fought for within the framework of capitalist society (the so-called minimum program).

However, at the very time that this approach was being codified throughout the Socialist International, the objective conditions which had justified it — that capitalism was in an ascendant, progressive stage — were ceasing to exist. From the end of the 19th century competitive capitalism based upon the dominance of industrial capital was superseded by monopoly capitalism based upon the dominance of finance capital (the merging of banking and industrial capital through monopolistic joint-stock companies). The developed capitalist nations were also creating a world imperialist system by converting foreign lands into colonies and semicolonies.

In his 1880 pamphlet, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, Engels had already anticipated the decisive features of this new stage of capitalism:

If the [recurring economic] crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies, trusts and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil each one another of their capital 10

The emergence of joint-stock companies and of monopolistic trusts, Engels observed, expressed the “partial recognition of the social character of the productive forces forced upon the capitalists themselves” and the transformation of the capitalists into “superfluous class” of “dividend-mongers”.

By the beginning of the 20th century, these features had become generalised within the developed capitalist nations and, consequently, the objective conditions for replacing the anarchistic economy of capitalism with a socially planned economy — a sufficient level of development of the objective socialisation of the labour — had matured in the developed capitalist countries that dominated the world economy. As a result of the maturing of these objective conditions, capitalist relations of production had become fetters on the development of humanity’s productive forces, opening an epoch of social revolution. The first and most striking manifestation of this was the 1905 Russian revolution, which Lenin described as a unique combination of bourgeois-democratic revolution (in its social content and immediate aims) and proletarian revolution (in its methods of struggle and in the vanguard role played in it by the working class).11

The great majority of the leaders of the socialist parties, however, failed to understand the meaning of this epochal change. The previous necessity of going through a temporary phase of struggle whose tactics aimed at obtaining limited immediate economic and political concessions from the capitalists was elevated by them into a permanent perspective. Instead of preparing the masses for future revolutionary action, they advanced the perspective that capitalism could be reformed to such a degree that socialism could be reached by parliamentary legislation and gradual steps instead of by social revolution. This line led to their becoming politically co-opted into the service of the capitalist class.

This drift toward parliamentary reformism was promoted by the capitalist rulers in the imperialist countries through use of part of their monopoly super-profits to grant more secure conditions of employment to a minority of workers — generally the “native-born”, unionised, skilled male workers. This layer of workers was therefore cushioned from the shocks of the capitalist business cycle and enjoyed material advantages over the mass of workers in the competition among workers to sell their labour power (material advantages reinforced by racial, sexual and national privileges). The “protected” upper strata of the working class — which Engels called the “aristocracy of labour” — became a medium for the inculcation of class-collaborationist illusions within the working class.

The bulk of the trade union officials, parliamentary representatives and apparatus functionaries of the big socialist parties — who were drawn from the labour aristocracy or from these parties’ petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers — began to put the defence of the privileges of the labour aristocracy ahead of any vigorous fight for the needs and interests of the working class as a whole.

Through a variety of political sops and avenues providing opportunities for personal enrichment the imperialist states transformed these opportunist labour leaders into conscious and professional political agents of the imperialist bourgeoisie within the labour movement, into advocates of a class-collaborationist political alliance based on achieving piecemeal reforms within the framework of defence of the “national interests” of the imperialist powers.

This process of “bourgeoisification” of the Social-Democratic parties manifested itself most starkly with the outbreak of World War I, when the opportunist labour leaders in each of the imperialist countries abandoned even the verbal pretence of support for international working-class solidarity and threw themselves into supporting the predatory war aims of their “own” ruling class.

The drift toward class-collaborationist reformism in the Socialist International met with opposition from figures like Rosa Luxemburg, V.I. Lenin, and Leon Trotsky. They saw the possibility of a socialist victory in the near future. Most significant of all, Lenin saw the need to build a revolutionary combat party made up of professional revolutionaries to assure that victory, and he set about building such a party against opposition from all sides.


In confronting the question of how the proletariat could lead the peasant masses to carry to completion a bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia as a step toward a socialist revolution, Lenin revived the concept of transitional measures. In the face of the economic chaos and the worsening threat of famine from Russia’s involvement in the First World War, he advocated that the Bolsheviks carry out propaganda for a workers’ and peasants’ government, based on the alternative organs of state power the workers and peasants had themselves created (the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies), that would introduce a series of revolutionary measures “transitional to socialism”. In his April 1917 pamphlet “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution”, Lenin wrote:

Under no circumstances can the party of the proletariat set itself the aim of “introducing” socialism in a country of small peasants so long as the overwhelming majority of the population has not come to realise the need for a socialist revolution.

But only bourgeois sophists, hiding behind “near-Marxist” catchwords, can deduce from this truth a justification of the policy of postponing immediate revolutionary measures, the time for which is fully ripe; measures which have been frequently resorted to during the war by a number of bourgeois states, and which are absolutely indispensable in order to combat impending total economic disorganisation and famine.

Such measures as the nationalisation of the land, of all the banks and capitalist syndicates [government-organised production and distribution cartels — DL], or, at least, the immediate establishment of the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, etc., over them — measures which do not in any way constitute the “introduction” of socialism — must be carried out in a revolutionary way. Without such measures, which are only steps towards socialism, and which are perfectly feasible economically, it will be impossible to heal the wounds caused by the war and to avert the impending collapse.12

Propaganda for such “transitional measures” — the best example of which was Lenin’s September 1917 pamphlet “The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It” — played a central role in winning the masses to support the Bolsheviks’ perspective of the transfer of “All Power to the Soviets”. In this pamphlet Lenin set down five principal measures which he argued would be “essentially equivalent to that of the programme of any truly revolutionary government that would wish to save Russia from war and famine”. These were:

(1) Amalgamation of all banks into a single bank, and state control over its operations, or nationalisation of the banks.

(2) Nationalisation of the syndicates, i.e., the largest, monopolistic capitalist associations (sugar, oil, coal, iron and steel, and other syndicates).

(3) Abolition of commercial secrecy.

(4) Compulsory syndication (i.e., compulsory amalgamation into associations) of industrialists, merchants and employers generally.

(5) Compulsory organisation of the population into consumers’ societies, or encouragement of such organisation, and the exercise of control over it.13

Lenin stressed that many of these measures of state control over economic life had been implemented during the First World War by the German imperialist state. The following extracts from his pamphlet graphically illustrate how Lenin explained the connection between the implementation of these measures by a revolutionary-democratic state and the transition to socialism:

Everybody talks about imperialism. But imperialism is merely monopoly capitalism.

That capitalism in Russia has also become monopoly capitalism is sufficiently attested by the examples of the Produgol, the Prodamet, the Sugar Syndicate, etc. This Sugar Syndicate is an object lesson in the way monopoly capitalism develops into state-monopoly capitalism.

And what is the state? It is an organisation of the ruling class — in Germany, for instance, of the Junkers and capitalists. And therefore what the German Plekhanovs14 (Scheideman, Lensch and others) call “war socialism” is in fact wartime state-monopoly capitalism …

Now try to substitute for the Junker-capitalist state, for the landowner-capitalist, a revolutionary-democratic state, i.e., a state which in a revolutionary way abolishes all privileges and does not fear to introduce the fullest democracy in a revolutionary way. You will find that, given a really revolutionary-democratic state, state-monopoly capitalism inevitably and unavoidably implies a step, and more than one step, towards socialism!

For if a huge capitalist undertaking becomes a monopoly, it means that it serves the whole nation. If it has become a state monopoly, it means that the state (i.e., the armed organisation of the population, the workers and peasants above all, provided there is revolutionary democracy) directs the whole undertaking. In whose interest?

Either in the interest of the landowners and capitalists, in which case we have not a revolutionary-democratic, but a reactionary-bureaucratic state, an imperialist republic.

Or in the interest of revolutionary democracy — and then it is a step toward socialism.

For socialism is merely the next step forward from state-capitalist monopoly. Or, in other words, socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly.15

After the Bolshevik-led worker-soldier insurrection on November 7, 1917 (October 25 in the old Russian calendar) had transferred all state power to the soviets (councils) of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies, the Soviet state proceeded to implement these measures of control over the capitalist monopolies, of “despotic inroads into the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production”. However, the capitalists’ resistance and sabotage — encouraged by the beginning of Anglo-French military intervention in middle of 1918 — forced the Bolsheviks to advance much more rapidly than they had wanted to “centralise all the [industrial] instruments of production” in the hands of the Soviet state. This led, at the end of the Russian Civil War in 1921, to a partial retreat — the New Economic Policy.


Basing itself on the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917, the Communist International explicitly rejected the Social-Democratic conception of confining its day-to-day propaganda and agitation to a “minimum program” of immediate reforms attainable within the framework of capitalism. In the “Theses on Tactics” adopted by its third congress, held in June-July 1921, the Comintern stated:

The Communist parties do not put forward minimum programs which could serve to strengthen and improve the tottering foundations of capitalism. The Communists’ main aim is to destroy the capitalist system. But in order to achieve their aim the Communist parties must put forward demands expressing the immediate needs of the working class. The Communist must organise mass campaigns to fight for these demands regardless of whether they are compatible with the continuation of the capitalist system. The Communist parties should be concerned not with the viability and competitive capacity of capitalist economy, but with proletarian poverty, which cannot and must not be endured any longer. If the demands put forward by the Communist correspond to the immediate needs of the broad proletarian masses, and if the masses are convinced that they cannot go on living unless their demands are met, then the struggle around these issues becomes the starting-point of the struggle for power.

In place of the minimum program of the centrists and reformists, the Communist International offers a struggle for the concrete demands of the proletariat which, in their totality, challenge the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat and mark out the different stages of the struggle for its dictatorship. Even before the broad masses consciously understand the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, they can respond to each of the individual demands. As more and more people are drawn into the struggle around these demands and as the needs of the masses come into conflict with the needs of capitalist society, the working class will come to realise that if it wants to live, capitalism will have to die. This realisation will be the main motivation in their struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The task of the Communist parties is to extend, deepen and unify the struggle around these demands …

The Communist parties should make certain that the demands they put forward not only correspond to the [needs] of the broad masses, but also draw the masses into battle and lay the basis for organising them. Concrete slogans that express the economic need of the working masses must lead to the struggle for control of industry — control based not on a plan to organise the economy bureaucratically and under the capitalist system, but on the factory committees and revolutionary trade unions …

The objections raised against single-issue demands and the accusations that campaigns on single issues are reformist reflect an inability to grasp the essential conditions of revolutionary action. This was the case with the opposition of certain Communist groups to participation in trade unions and in parliament. It is not a question of appealing to the proletariat to fight for the ultimate goal, but of developing the practical struggle which alone can lead the proletariat to the struggle for the ultimate goal.16

In November 1922 the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) adopted a “Draft Resolution for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern on the Question of the Program of the Communist International”, which was submitted for discussion at the congress by Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek and Bukharin. The draft resolution affirmed the “necessity of fighting for transition demands subject to appropriate reservations making these demands dependent on concrete conditions of place and time should be stated explicitly and categorically in the national programmes” of each Communist party. It argued that the “theoretical basis for all such transition or limited demands should be definitely stated in the general programme” of the Communist parties and these general programs “should clearly state the basic historical types of transition demands of the national parties depending on cardinal differences of economic structure, as for example, Britain and India, and such like”.17

However, as the Comintern became Stalinised in the 1920s, it abandoned the idea of transitional demands. After some ultraleft convulsions, the main orientation of the Stalinised Comintern became the search for opportunist alliances with various wings of the bourgeoisie (Popular Front, Governments of National Unity, etc.) deemed favourable to diplomatic alliances with the USSR. The Communist parties in the West turned, first in practice, and then consciously, to the reformist and class-collaborationist orientation that socialism could be achieved through gradual reforms carried out by winning “socialist” majorities in bourgeois parliaments.

Following the bureaucratic degeneration of the Comintern, it was the movement of communist oppositionists led by Leon Trotsky that defended and enriched the work done by the first four congresses of the Comintern in the field of developing a transitional program. After a number of initial efforts by national sections of the International Communist League (for example, the Action Program of 1934 of the Ligue Communiste in France),18 Trotsky drafted the “Transitional Program” for its successor organisation, the Fourth International.


Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” formulates a series of measures aimed at mobilising the masses into actions which correspond to their present level of consciousness in order to lead them, through the education they receive from the Marxist party in the course of these actions, to the level of consciousness necessary to conquer political power.

Three kinds of demands are advanced in the “Transitional Program”:

  • Immediate demands are specific measures to defend or improve the standard of living or the working conditions of the masses within the framework of the capitalist system, e.g., demands for higher wages, reduced working hours, increased government spending on social services.
  • Democratic demands involve the defence and extension of the equal right of working people to participate in the administration of state policy (e.g., freedom of association, right to strike, free speech, the armed organisation of the population, election of all officials, etc.) as well as demands for formal legal, civil and political equality for specially oppressed sections of the population (e.g., equal rights for women, young people, gay men and lesbians, oppressed nations and racial groups).
  • Transitional demands constitute the heart of the “Transitional Program”. They involve, as Marx and Engels put it in the “Communist Manifesto”, measures directed toward wresting, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, toward centralising the means of production in the hands of the proletariat organised as the ruling class. Taken separately, these measures therefore “appear economically insufficient and untenable” but “in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production”. They have particular relevance in countering the devastating impact of the economic chaos created by decaying capitalism — permanent inflation of prices and mass unemployment. If militantly fought for by masses of workers, they can, as Trotsky noted, act as “bridge” from “today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class” and point them toward the need for the conquest of state power by the proletariat. Most of the demands in the “Transitional Program”, notably the proposals for a sliding scale of wages and hours, workers’ control of production, and the expropriation of the private banks and of “key branches of industry or the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie”, belong to this category.

Under certain circumstances, agitation around any of these different types of demands can serve to mobilise working people in mass anti-capitalist struggles. It is the mobilising potential of any of these types of demands at any particular conjuncture in the class struggle that is of primary interest to revolutionists. It is a basic fact of political life that people who are united with others in struggle are more open to radical ideas and new forms of action than those who are atomised and quiescent.


Commenting upon Trotsky’s “Transitional Program”, Joseph Hansen — a former secretary of Trotsky’s in the late 1930s and a longtime leader of the US Socialist Workers Party — noted that:

Whether the struggle centres around immediate, democratic or transitional demands, revolutionary Marxists advocate methods of battle in which the proletariat is strongest, i.e., utilisation of its strategic position in the capitalist economic system and mobilisation of its numbers on a mass scale.

It should be observed that in the struggle for socialism, immediate, democratic, and transitional demands are but means to an end. In fighting for immediate demands, for instance, the workers gain organisational cohesiveness and battle experience of prime importance in more far-reaching struggles.

However, only as they gain consciousness of their interests as a class do workers take the goal of socialism as their own and begin utilising the means open to them to achieve that goal. The rise of a revolutionary party is the surest indicator of the development of that class consciousness, for it places at the disposal of the masses the main lessons of past revolutionary experience (embodied in the theory handed down and developed since the time of Marx and Engels). The party also provides cadres tested in the class struggle and in revolutionary politics. The party in turn enters the revolutionary process as the decisive subjective component, assuring a socialist victory if the objective conditions are ripe for it. The need to construct such a party was what Trotsky had in mind when he wrote, in the opening sentence of the “Transitional Program”: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”19

Indeed, the fundamental purpose of the “Transitional Program” was to provide the Marxist cadres of relatively small propaganda groups with a line of march and a method for constructing mass revolutionary workers’ parties.

Regardless of the applicability at any given moment in the class struggle of any of the specific demands contained in it, what is most significant about Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” is that it points to the method for bridging the gap between the present size and influence of the Marxist forces and the mass forces required to overthrow capitalist rule. This transitional method consists in approaching the masses at whatever level of consciousness and organisation they stand today and in drawing them, through progressive struggles and political explanations, toward a higher level of thought and action, that is, in the direction of the socialist revolution.

A succinct example of this method is provided by Trotsky in his discussion in the “Transitional Program” of how revolutionists can solve the problem of creating an armed organisation that involves the majority of the population, a problem that belongs to the issue of creating a consistent and complete democracy. He begins with spontaneous mass actions; in this case strikes, factory occupations and picket lines. Then he proceeds to the probable response of the capitalists — the use of violence. He then outlines how revolutionists should respond to such developments: by conducting systematic propaganda in the trade unions for workers’ self-defence guards to counter the use by the capitalists of the police, armed thugs, and the bourgeois army. As these self-defence measures become broader and the class struggle intensifies, the revolutionists should conduct propaganda, then agitation, and finally action, for the organisation of mass-based permanent armed workers’ detachments — a workers’ militia — to guarantee the security of the mass workers’ organisations, meetings, and press. Through such persistent propaganda, agitational and organisational work, always based on the experience of the masses themselves, the revolutionists can imbue the proletariat with an understanding of the irreconcilable antagonism between their class interests and those of the capitalist class and its armed organisations, and the necessity to replace the latter with their own centralised armed organisation.

The transitional method of imbuing the proletarian masses with revolutionary class consciousness and leading them on to the road of the struggle for state power did not, of course, originate with Trotsky. He learned it from Lenin and his successful application of it in building the Bolshevik party. To fully grasp the transitional method containing in Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” therefore requires far more than simply studying this single document. It requires learning how the Bolshevik party was built and how it was able to organise and mobilise the Russian proletariat to carry out the world’s first socialist revolution.


1 See below, pp. 69-70.

2 ibid., p. 70.

3 See below, p. 25-26.

4 K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto and Its Relevance for Today (Resistance Books: Sydney, 1998), pp. 62-63.

5 ibid., pp. 73, 72-73.

6 D. Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 109-111.

7 K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto and Its Relevance for Today, pp. 50-51, 55.

8 K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1977), pp. 191-192.

9 ibid., pp. 189, 190, 199-200.

10 K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, pp. 144-145

11 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 23 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1977), pp. 238-239.

12V.I. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 2 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1976), pp. 50-51

13ibid., pp. 187, 188.

14Georgy Plekhanov (1856-1918) was the first propagandist of Marxism in Russia. After the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, he took a conciliatory stand in the struggle between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, and afterward joined the opportunist Mensheviks. During the First World War he adopted a national-chauvinist position. After the February 1917 revolution he headed the extreme right-wing of the Mensheviks and opposed the Bolshevik-led proletarian revolution of October 1917.

15 V.I. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. 2, p. 211.

16 Alan Adler (ed.), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International (Ink Links: London, 1980), pp. 285-87.

17 V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 42 (Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1976), p. 428.

18 L. Trotsky, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1934-35) (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1971), pp. 21-32.

19 J. Hansen, “Trotsky’s Transitional Program: Its Origins and Significance for Today” in L. Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (Pathfinder Press: New York, third edition, 1977), pp. 25-26.